Fair Isn't Always Equal at Owen J. Roberts Middle School

In his previous school administrative job, Robert Salladino led a faculty study of Fair Isn't Always Equal (Stenhouse, 2006) and "felt this incredible connection" to author Rick Wormeli's message about effective assessment and grading in the differentiated classroom. So in 2007, when Salladino became principal of Owen J. Roberts Middle School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, he made sure every teacher had a copy of the book.

Salladino and his leadership team also attended a two-day workshop with Wormeli and began encouraging teachers to implement recommended strategies such as letting students redo assignments and ensuring that all recorded grades were accurate, consistent, meaningful, and supportive of learning. The research supporting those practices is so strong that Salladino was surprised when many faculty members resisted the changes.

"We were hearing every argument that Rick mentions in the book," Salladino said. "We were living it."

Like Wormeli, he believes grades should indicate progress toward learning instead of reflecting an arbitrary and inconsistent collection of academic and nonacademic factors that might include test results, compliance with homework policies, subjective evaluations of effort, and points for class participation.

"The traditional way of thinking about grades is they reward kids or punish kids. We really have to say that grades are informational," Salladino said. "One of the things we took away from Rick's work is that in order for grades to be meaningful we have to focus on mastery learning. It should be about how well I learned, not how I turned in assignments. For late work and redoing work, for instance, we said to teachers: 'The way we currently structure school, it's set up so everybody should demonstrate mastery at the same time. If we let go of grades used to rank kids, what should it matter if you learned something after the teacher retaught it in a different way? It's getting to the destination. It doesn't matter if you needed a different route than the rest of the class. Ultimately, did you learn what we wanted you to learn?'"

Some teachers protested that letting students redo work would encourage them to shirk responsibility, whereas Wormeli and other assessment experts claim the opposite: If students have to keep revising their work until they meet high standards, they develop persistence and respect for excellence.

History teacher Michael Brilla and science teacher Stephen DeRafelo likened the philosophy to how they coach wrestling. Just as they don't stop guiding kids when they perform poorly in a competition, which is a form of assessment about skill development, they also shouldn't give up on students who need more time or instruction to understand subject content.

"If a kid bombed a test, why would I just move on?" asked DeRafelo. "If I'm structuring my class to build a knowledge base, it's negligent of me to move on. The only way to offer the opportunity and encouragement for kids who didn't get a lab right or a test is, 'Let's do this again.'"

Both teachers acknowledge they were initially skeptical about the value of shifting from traditional assessment and grading practices that expect everyone to learn at the same pace. Brilla had an "aha" moment when a colleague used the metaphor of two families traveling on the same day to Disney World. Must one family cancel the entire trip just because car trouble caused a delay in reaching the destination?

"As far as retests and redos, we talked about how as adults all the high-stakes tests we take you have the opportunity to do them over-the SAT, the LSAT, even the driver's license test," Brilla said. "The idea that you could learn from your mistakes from your first evaluation made sense to me then."

Brilla and DeRafelo said they don't offer retakes without reinforcing accountability. Working with students, they carefully analyze test results and design strategies that will help them do better the second time. Students and their parents must sign off on the plans, assuming ownership of the process. Brilla also asks students to complete a self-evaluation and reflection after every social studies project, which they then use to craft a plan to correct mistakes.

"I think kids are more willing to take risks than before because they know they will have the opportunity to fix things the next time," Brilla said.

Salladino believes some teachers at Owen J. Roberts Middle School have resisted making similar changes because grading is one of the few areas in education they can control, and many are reluctant to open their practices to scrutiny. To persuade the skeptics, Salladino encourages teachers who've shifted to standards-based grading to share their successes with colleagues. Krista Venza, the school's instructional support facilitator, said she also guides her colleagues to free resources, including explanatory videos and answers to common questions, which Wormeli has provided at a companion website.

"It's really helpful for me to use Rick's words to share with teachers," Venza said. "It's a different way of hearing it than maybe what I've been saying, another way for them to get it."

While guiding the school's veteran teachers toward fair and consistent grading practices, Salladino said he also questions job candidates to determine whether they would be supportive of the shift toward mastery learning. Additionally, new teachers receive copies of Day One and Beyond (Stenhouse, 2003), Wormeli's guide for new middle-grades teachers, as part of the school's induction program.

Salladino said he tries to model principles he expects teachers to use in the classroom in his own work with the faculty. For example, when new teachers turn in lesson plans, he does not offer a cursory and meaningless review. Instead, he suggests specific changes and asks them to resubmit the lesson plans after reflecting and revising their work. Before he distributes school communications, Salladino also seeks feedback from the assistant principal.

"We need to have the idea that all of our work needs polishing," he said.

Math teacher Matthew Charleston took that message to heart last school year when he instituted a policy that students could retake any unit exam or major test. This school year he extended it to include all assignments, quizzes, and tests-with an important caveat. To take a similar but more difficult second assessment, students must correct and explain all errors in the previous version. High-performing students are easily motivated by the chance to improve their grades, he said. For struggling students, Charleston provides time during class or during breaks throughout the day to offer guided corrections.

"You see that 'aha,'" he said. "They have more confidence."

Charleston and other teachers who have adopted the changes recommended in Fair Isn't Always Equal said they frequently encounter colleagues-including their own teaching spouses-who disagree with the different expectations. They believe evidence of their own successes will eventually sway the doubters. Having collegial conversations about difficult issues and giving teachers access to good professional resources is part of the plan to change the school's culture one mind at a time.

"I want them to believe this is right for kids, not because my boss told me I had to do it," Salladino said. "This has been no easy journey, but we continue to forge ahead. With each month and marking period I think we are bringing more people on board."